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The Henderson County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously on Wednesday morning to approve a new Hendersonville High School for $59 million, lowering the curtain on a political drama that has dragged on for more than four years.

The vote came at 11:48 a.m., one hour and 48 minutes after County Commission Chair Grady Hawkins opened a joint meeting meeting with the School Board to discuss a renovation-new construction plan that blends the historic Stillwell building with a second classroom building, a cafeteria, band and chorus room and auxiliary gym. Commissioners raised some questions and expressed some concerns over the details but the atmosphere overall was far more cordial than previous meetings where the two boards were divided.

Noting that he spent 40 years as a civil engineer, Commissioner Bill Lapsley asked a series of questions about the plans.

"For better or for worse, when I look at this type drawing, a lot of past experiences come to mind," he said.

For starters, he said a right-turn-in right turn-out entrance and exit could create problems.

Next, he said, the courtyard space is far smaller than the outdoor area students currently use — about 5,000 square feet less. "It's really less space than what the students are using now," he said. The plan the county commissioners have endorsed for an all new school had almost double the current space.

"That's one of the tradeoffs," he said. "You can go up and have more common space or you can go out" with a larger footprint.

Lapsley also had problems with the look and feel of the enclosed courtyard.

"When you look at this courtyard area ... my vision is we're looking at a three-story rear-end of the Stillwell building." He encouraged the architects "to make it a little more atrractive because I think most people are going to be very disappointed when they stare up at this three-story backside of the building."

In the end, commissioners said, the total price will be around $60 million counting new artificial turf on Dietz Field, the high school stadium.

Lapsley delivered his grade on the eight issues he said last summer a new plan needed to address. "Let me express how I think you've done," he said. Here are Lapsley's eight bullet points:

  • Time of construction: it's about the same amount of time as the original plan.
  • Security:  "I think this is covered well in both the designs," he said.
  • Student safety during construction: Part of the phasing "is very tight" and could put students near cranes and heavy construction activity. "They're going to be very very close" to the construction. Students "are going to get curious and lean up against the fence" and "hassle the contractors."
  • Modular units: None are proposed. "I want to make sure everybody understands there's no gymnasiums or cafeteria for 18 months," he said. "I just want to make sure everyone understands what's going to happen if this alternative is selected." On the whole, though, he said the plan meets his demand of no modular units. "The parents and the teachers and the students, it's easy for us to say, they can live with it for a month or two but year or more than a year, it's going to be a significant backlash from the people involved."
  • Lifespan of new vs. renovation. Still no question, all-new alternative would last longer than renovation, he said.
  • Quality of materials: He is satisfied materials are equal to the original plan and not inferior to cut costs.
  • Phasing: The proposed phasing is OK.
  • Cost: After a review of the initial, it was clear that several items were not included. But once the two sides sat down and reviewed everything they and agreed on the $59.2 million cost. "We've got to live with the number," he said. "I honestly believe you can build a quality project for this money."

"So to me what it comes down to is a lack of an auditorium and gymnasium and cafeteria (during construction) and the inconvenience and the price the students and the community have to pay in order to have the Stillwell building and the newer gymnasium as part of the campus," he said. "It comes down to how important having those components is and is the community willing to suffer the inconvenience they're going to have."

Commissioner Rebecca McCall asked about growth projections. At 200 students per grade, HHS would have 800 students. "We're building this for 900," Superintendent Bo Caldwell said. "If we see the capacity growing basically we'll have to go to a lottery system and deny requests" from students outside the HHS zone.

"It's my belief and I understand that this is a School Board decision," she said. "At the end of the day you've got to come up with a plan that's going to meet the needs of our chidlren and I just want to make sure that was first and foremost. I like this plan."

"I heard comments and I hear a lot more negative about Hendersonville Bearcats than any other school I've had to deal with in the last 19 years," Commissioner Charlie Messer said. "We're not the only county in the state that has problems with the School Board and people in the county not agreeing with them..... My overall concern is the pricetag." But, he added: "Time is money. We need to get this thing started. ... I can live with the controversy of everything else coming down the road."

Commissioner Michael Edney, an HHS graduate, father of one HHS graduate and another scheduled to enroll next year, asked a series of questions about the configuration of a renovated Stillwell building and about parking.

Architect Maggie Carnevale said the team spent a day with principal Bobby Wilkins identifying all the courses and how much classroom space they needed.

The number of parking spaces — 146 — is less than the 203 spaces the earlier plan provided. Carnevale said 146 was the number of spaces the city will require based on the zoning code, she said. Edney said that's not enough.

"Safety is the No. 1 concern and you've got them parking on the street," he said. "What am I missing on that? Part of what we talked about a long time ago was to get them off the street."

With 80 employees and 146 spaces, "that doesn't leave space for 300 kids driving to school," he said. When it endorsed the previous plan "we were all crucified about kids near the highway ... kids getting run over, all that crazy stuff and now it's all gone away and nobody cares."

Carnevale defended the parking lot, on the street parking and traffic plan, saying it would be safer than what exists now.

"There's not enough on-site parking," Edney said, adding that the School Board needed to "address parking as a safety issue."

"I think the parking is more than the other one," said School Board member Jay Egolf, HHS class of 1989. "I do like the fact that the new building is not on (Highway) 25 or close to 25. I think that's plenty of parking. When I was there I got a ticket one time and for next two or three months I kept parking there and putting the same old ticket" on the windshield.

Blair Craven said the School Board had received drawings Tuesday for possible uses of the Fassifern Court lot, which the county bought for HHS parking. The new architects said the runover lot is not needed. Potential uses included tennis courts, a practice field and 12 or more parking spaces, Craven said.

Commission Chair Grady Hawkins suggested that a committee made up of county commissioners and School Board members — the newly resurrected Joint Facilities Committee— could explore the parking question.

"Obviously, whatever you come up with, any way you can squeeze it, it's not going to be 400 parking spots," Hawkins said. The School Board, he added, could limit the number of students allowed to drive to school — 100 seniors, for instance — in order to solve the problem on the demand side instead of the supply.

"This is a judgment call," he said.

Edney called the Stillwell renovation an "inferior product" that could be made better if the county spent $3 million or $4 million more. "It's adequate but it's not the best plan we could do," Edney said.

Chairman Amy Lynn Holt and Egolf defended the plan, saying it was safer and more workable than any other proposal.

Hawkins said the architects have the expertise to renovate the building and along with the county's construction manager at risk can accomplish the job despite challenges.

"We'll have to rely on the expertise of Vannoy and Co. and make do with what we've got there," he said.

Not having a cafeteria and a gym for a year "is definitely a sacrifice," Craven said. "Is it ideal? No. Can we get through it? Absolutely."

Craven said he's talked with his children, all heading to HHS, about the project.

"We understand what sacrifice really means but we are building a school not only for him and for his buddies but also for his little sister. This is what the community wants, this is what the board voted on and it's not an inferior product by any stretch of the imagination. "

"We certainly hope that you guys will support that and do your magic with funding," said Mary Louise Corn. "We believe and I think you believe — otherwise you wouldn't have bought the Boyd lot — and the community believes we need to stay where we are and make the best that we can."

"It's been a long journey hasn't it?" Rick Wood said. "At times it's been very painful but I'm encouraged by the way we're working together to try to see this project through. This is not a perfect plan, no plan would be. Certainly we could spend more and do certain things. We have a lot of needs in our county for schools after this project is over. It's the right plan to move forward with now, (even if it's) not perfect."

Hawkins told School Board members that problems remain but "those are all in your court." It's up to the School Board to figure out "if Hendersonville Middle can make enough lunches to bring over. I do know there's a finite amount of land ... and a finite number of parking spaces."